Rabbi Sacks on an Engaged Judaism

JInsider (March 2010)

I believe that religion is answerable to the world. And that’s very important because a religion that only exists behind high defensive walls could be the most beautiful and sublime religion. It could be the most fanatical and extreme religion. Until you’ve tested a religion in the world and seen how it changes lives, you have not really done the job of pursuing religious truth. You haven’t even done the job that God asks of us, which is to bring Heaven down here on Earth. So, that is the first thing, a Judaism answerable to the world.

But my second thing is a Judaism that engages with the world. I am a Rabbi. So you would have thought that my engagement, and 99% of it is, is with other Jews. But then I suddenly discovered that Christians want to hear this message. So do Sikhs. So do Hindus. So do Jains, Zoroastrians, Baha’i, and so do Buddhists. And so do moderate Muslims. They look at us and they see, here is a religion that engages with the world, that integrates into liberal democratic societies, and doesn’t lose its identity. Even secular humanists say: Here is a religion that is not fanatical. That is not crazy. That does not ask of you to believe six impossible things before breakfast, (the way the Red Queen did to Alice in Wonderland). It’s a rational, sensible religion.

So suddenly Judaism inspires people of all faiths and none. And that’s not a hypothesis. That’s the reality I live in. I really feel through all the work I’ve done, that people out there, Jew a non-Jew alike, are hungry for a Jewish voice. A voice that’s not judgmental. That’s not preachy. That doesn’t try and convert the unconverted. A voice that doesn’t shut up all criticism. That doesn’t brand every question as incipient heresy. This is great religion.

And for Heaven’s sake, when did we have, before, the chance of doing what Isaiah tells us God wanted us to do? Which is to be a light to the nations. Which is, as God said to Abraham, through you all the families of the world will be blessed. Here it is. God asked us to do it. When in all our 4,000 years of history were people hungry to hear a Jewish message? Not in Bible times, where most people were polytheist. Not in the Hellenistic age when most people believed in reason, not revelation. Not in the Middle Ages when Christians and Muslims thought Judaism was finished and an irrelevance. Not during the Enlightenment when people didn’t want to know about religion at all.

All of a sudden, for the first time in history, we can fulfil God’s great challenge to Abraham, God’s great challenge to Isaiah. At this moment when we can, are we going to walk away from that challenge? I really feel that Rav Nachman of Breslav put it best. The main thing is never to be afraid. Go out there in the public domain, tell people what you believe, and never be afraid that your faith will be diminished. Because people who have faith, have confidence, or they jolly well should do.